Dear Steven Moffat: The Husbands of River Song


Dear Steven,

I’ve often wondered if your Doctor Who Christmas specials would be better if the BBC lied to you and said they’d be going out in April. It would surely change the way you approached the task, so instead of staring at that flashing cursor with a mind to crowbar in festive iconography or stuff the pudding with sentimentality and yuletide whimsy, you’d just write the best script you could. Sure, I don’t know what that means these days and neither do you, but it could result in a story with a little dramatic integrity…and no snow…and no comedians hamming it up in key roles. Can you imagine it, Steven? Because I can, and did while “The Husbands of River Song” made light of bigamy and gold digging on Christmas Day.

So this was a romp then and a relief for you, no doubt, because the Christmas brief allowed you to play to your strengths (jokes, surrealism, lashings of shtick) while giving licence to dump all the stuff we expect of the series proper (drama, plot, stakes, consequences). This was an episode for the fans, and by fans I mean pissed up geeks masturbating furiously at the re-introduction of River Song, revelling in her sexually liberated, mercenary brand of sass.

This was, we inferred, the occasional companion’s final (from her point of view) chronological appearance – the last staging post on the journey to Tennant and Tate, so you were determined to make it celebratory. This walking headfuck, possibly the most problematic subject of Who Do You Think You Are? ever, would have one last chance to shine while the Doctor retained a respectful supporting role – anonymous for the most part, due to the comic conceit of River having no knowledge of his thirteenth face.

Did we buy the idea of River not recognising the Doctor? Well at first it was enjoyable enough, but as the story went through its inconsequential paces there was the sense that Song had taken a dose of horse tranquilisers. The man she mistook for an intergalactic surgeon answered to the name of “The Doctor”, which in isolation was no give away, but he also seemed to be a know-it-all who took the piss, feigning amazement at the TARDIS interior, and had useful suggestions on how the time machine worked which just happened to be exactly right. That, plus the constant prompts about his identity, ‘don’t you recognise me?’, ‘don’t you know me?’, should, I feel, have been enough to tip off a woman of River’s intelligence. But for comic reasons alone the misunderstanding continued for most of the episode, denying these two long standing characters a chance to engage in a reunion of any substance.

Instead you used the conceit to tease the suggestion that River wasn’t the Doctor fan girl we always supposed. As someone who believes that each of us is different with different people, that in effect there’s no such thing as a consistent character, I was pleasantly surprised to find this idea gaining a little currency on my Christmas drool box.

You took a chance and had River be a bit of a bitch – someone who was happy to kill a man to get the diamond in his brain, who presumptuously stole the TARDIS without the Doctor’s permission and helped herself to the brandy and, when talking to a man she believed to be a stranger, categorising the Doctor as no one special but ‘terribly useful’. Capaldi played the disappointment beautifully, with great understatement, yet remained on side when most of us would be thinking of taking Song straight to the date and place of her death without further delay.

But this was a Christmas episode of course, so we ultimately learned this was all self-protecting brio on River’s part, and that she did love the Doctor, but liked to pretend otherwise as her feelings almost certainly weren’t reciprocated. In an ideal world, one in which the Doctor remained in character, he’d love her the way you and I regard the cat or our favourite jumper, but on this most mawkish of holidays there was the unwelcome suggestion that Capaldi’s Time Lord felt a bit more than that. There was even an idiotic fairy tale caption at the end to underline the point.

River and the Doctor lived happily ever after? Well only if you count a 24-year long night out as forever and ignore Song’s certain death. Incidentally I tried to work out how a restaurant that served a clientele who booked for 24 years at a time would operate, but was defeated. When the manager told the Doctor to come back in four years, did she mean four of hers or four of his? Did she really mean, ‘come back in 96 years’? And why do they celebrate Christmas on Darillium anyway? Or indeed anywhere else in the universe bar Earth? Are we exporting it in the future? I mean, why should any alien culture be interested?

So “The Husbands of River Song” was just good natured filler, really; an episode you had in your pocket in the event you ran out of ideas for festive specials. Effectively an emergency episode, it was light hearted, fun and a few of the jokes raised a smile; I suppose if that’s the test for a Christmas special then it passed. But do these seasonal farts have to be throwaway? Would it not be better to use the guarantee of a captive audience on Christmas Day to unleash a feature length slab of knockout, mythos-deepening drama, with implications we’d talk about for months to come, ahead of the new series premiere? What’s that, be grateful for Greg Davis and Matt Lucas? Well I hope you have a real fire at Chez Moffat because you’ll be getting coal next year.

Yours in time and cyberspace,


P.S: This year’s movie reference was Spies Like Us and a reprise of the fake Doctor surgical procedure. It was funnier when Chase and Aykroyd did it.

P.P.S: Did the Doctor need to retain his sonic sunglasses now he has a new screwdriver? Did the TARDIS not generate a fresh one as a polite way of saying, ‘ditch the shades, idiot’?

P.P.P.S: Was it me, or was the 54th century street on Mendorax Dellora just the London alien street from Face the Raven with added snow and Christmas decorations? How cheap do you have to be to reuse a distinctive set from 3 episodes ago?

P.P.P.P.S: “The pandorica opens; that sounds exciting.” Not as exciting as it could have been, sadly. But we won’t get into that.

P.P.P.P.P.S: Catching a diamond with your tits. Great party trick.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S: “How are the twins?” “Still digesting their mother, thanks for asking.”

P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S: “You wouldn’t know if I look nice or not.” A nice bit of backtracking from you there. Of course Capaldi professes not to have any understanding of what constitutes a pleasant human appearance – an idea given some credence by his choice of clothes in his sixth incarnation – but this didn’t really seem to be a problem for his predecessors. Anyway, why the fuck not? Does anyone really care anymore? See you next year!

The Old Man and the C: 

The Clara Oswald Show:

Smith – The Dark Suit Jacket Years: 

Smith in his Pomp:

Deep Time:


  1. To be fair the happily ever after bit was talked about in the episode hence the final caption. Were you paying attention? 🙂

  2. No, of course not.

  3. Is it wrong that I’m starting to look forward to your reviews more than the actual episodes?

  4. […] Dear Steven Moffat: The Husbands of River Song – At work yesterday, a coworker asked me what I thought of the Doctor Who Christmas special.  I found myself struggling for words.  The ending worked for me, even though I recognized how emotionally manipulative it was.  The chemistry between Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston was solid, and I wouldn’t mind seeing River return for more hijinks.  But everything else about the story was either bewilderingly dumb, as though it were an unfunny Douglas Adams story, or the characterizations, like River’s especially, didn’t work.  Then I read this review of the episode, and it pretty much nailed all of my issues with the Christmas episode. Opinionoid […]

  5. We can both blame Steven for that.

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